What Geography and Economics Could Mean for India's China Problem

Geography necessitates that India play a role in the Belt and Road Initiative, but it is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that’s keeping it away.

A map illustrating China’s silk road economic belt and the 21st century maritime silk road, or the so-called ‘One Belt, One Road’ megaproject. Credit: Credit: Reuters/Bobby Yip/File Photo

In his book The Revenge of Geography, American scholar Robert Kaplan says the fact that China is blessed by geography is so basic that it is often overlooked in conversations about China’s growing economic and geo-strategic assertiveness. Quoting the British geographer Halford Mackinder, Kaplan writes, “who controls Eurasia, controls the world.” Today, as the world sits up and takes notice of China’s over $1.2 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which seeks to link the Chinese economy with 64 economies in South and Central Asia, and eventually Europe, the Middle East and Africa, the geography that Kaplan says has been ignored is at the very heart of the challenge this ambitious project poses to India.

Given that it already dominates the world economy with access to and from its massive eastern seaboard, senior Indian diplomats – serving and former – are convinced Beijing’s intentions to open such a massive trade front to the West are ‘neither benign nor transformative,’ but is instead aimed at a geo-strategic encirclement of India, and cutting India’s regional influence significantly – a initiative purely for China’s national interest.

Ever since the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a key component of the BRI in 2013 at a cost of roughly $50 billion – through the disputed areas of Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan occupied Kashmir – Delhi has had cause for alarm. Geography necessitates that India play a role in an initiative to link the regions of South and Central Asia economically, but it can easily be argued that it is this very project – the CPEC – that’s responsible for keeping it away from the BRI.

If there was any doubt earlier over the validity of these concerns, recent commentary in the Chinese media have confirmed them. While ostensibly reiterating a principle of non-interference in the affairs of other sovereign nations, Hu Weija argues in the Global Times that “Beijing can’t turn a deaf ear to the demands of Chinese enterprises in protecting their overseas investments.”

Against a backdrop of a spiralling crisis in Kashmir and a complete freeze in dialogue between India and Pakistan, the article argues for China’s vested interest in helping resolve “regional conflicts” and become a “stabilising force”. Another article in the same paper by Long Xingchun says the CPEC won’t affect the status quo of the Kashmir dispute with India, but aims only to improve economic ties between China and Pakistan. In a weak attempt to bolster this argument, the author claims Beijing doesn’t object to economic links between other countries – including India’s – with Taiwan, and so Delhi should be ‘pragmatic and flexible’ and open to economic activity in the Kashmir region.

The articles claims that Beijing is a neutral observer to the India-Pakistan dispute with only the region’s overall economic interest in mind ring hollow, given how closely China has tied its strategic positions against India with Pakistan – its all-weather friend. Whether it was the stapled visas it issued to Kashmiris in 2009, or its repeated refusal to proscribe Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar as an international terrorist at the UN, or its holding out against India for membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, China has been clear about where it stands; clarity and support that Pakistan will leverage at every opportunity, especially as the Islamabad-Washington relationship comes apart at the seams. According to US central bank data, US investment in Pakistan since July 2013 is at $505 million, as compared to China’s $1.82 billion. US President Donald Trump’s new budget proposals will most likely significantly cut American assistance to Pakistan as well.

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Bilahari Kaursikan, ambassador-at-large in Singapore’s foreign ministry, argues that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s comments at Davos that China is prepared to lead the liberal world order if the US isn’t, is as much “a tacit admission of erosion of that world order as it is a declaration of confidence in China’s power” globally. And the BRI is the product of that confidence – China’s ambitious plans to redefine its frontiers under the guise of the regional economic development. For a country with a 10% growth rate for well over three decades, the BRI is China’s attempt to consolidate land boundaries, and look out, westward.

With weakened Russian influence in Central Asia and the rise of a ‘multipolar’ world, opportunity was ripe for China to move into massive infrastructure projects, develop road networks and invest in energy – hydrocarbons, minerals and oil and gas – across the entire region. While its backers insist Beijing’s motives to set up this ‘new silk road’ are purely economic, Delhi – that has already seen the first signs of this expansionism with the development of the Karakoram Highway through disputed territories in Pakistan occupied Kashmir and the Gwadar Port off the Pakistani coast on the Arabian Sea – can’t help but be suspicious. The question now, really, is what leverage Delhi has in order to keep Chinese expansionism at bay.

Making a veiled criticism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticised Beijing earlier this year, saying regional connectivity corridors only work when sovereignty of countries involved is respected. In the run up to its massive BRI conference in Beijing, China has been lobbying to address Indian concerns, pointing precisely to the existence of the Karakoram Highway as proof that it won’t affect Kashmir’s territorial status. However, as an indication of India’s opposition to the CPEC, Modi has decided not to attend the upcoming meeting in Beijing, but send what Delhi calls a ‘low-level delegation’ instead. Delhi has to assess what else it can leverage in order to ensure its regional prominence. The Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh was a poke in the eye to Beijing. And on Pakistan, Delhi has made it clear it is in no mood to negotiate, unless violence along the Line of Control and international border in Jammu and Kashmir comes to a complete stop. But these are, at best, short term responses.

It is unclear how the BRI will develop and play out in the long run and how India will ensure a regional, economic strategy that effectively counters China. On the one hand, Chinese projects in the region from Pakistan to Sri Lanka have not yielded the potential they promised at the beginning. Its critics suggest that at some point in the not so distant future, there will be no choice but to renegotiate projects “with long gestation periods and variable returns” for better returns. On the other, supporters argue that India’s suspicion of the initiative is not shared globally and that China isn’t spending all this money for projects to fail, purely with the intention of reining India in. The IMF and credit ratings agency Moody’s have recognised the CPEC’s potential to drive growth in the region. Several UN fora have also endorsed the BRI, arguing that connectivity between so many smaller economies is in the larger, global interest.

What is clear is that China’s ambitious project has made the rest nervous. While India tries steadily to engage countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia and many Central Asian republics on natural resources, Japan is looking to develop infrastructure and connectivity projects in East and South Asia, with India as a pivot. The intention is to work around the BRI and its proposed benefits, so to speak, and make Pakistan nervous in the bargain. India’s Pakistan problem has morphed into India’s China problem, two pronged in a sense – one a clear subset of the India-China equation in a larger, economic sense, and two a genuine security threat along the border. But, over a decade ago, soft borders and the free flow of trade were also components of the 2004 ‘four-point plan’ for peace in Kashmir that now lies in the dustbin of politics. The BRI will go on, irrespective of India’s opposition, and while it is diplomatically next to impossible for Delhi to be a part of the initiative, could these ‘development wars’ against China lead to unexpected outcomes as regional powerhouses work competitively to create their own webs of economic connectivity and interdependence that will ultimately militate against the very geography, the very boundaries that define us?

Maya Mirchandani is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and Consulting Editor, India Matters at NDTV .